10 Incredible National Parks of Canada
Affordable, astoundingly beautiful and right next door!
From the continent that brought you Yellowstone and Yosemite: Astounding scenery! Glaciers you can climb! Swarms of wild butterflies!
We do not exaggerate. The National Parks of Canada are among the top touristic destinations in the world. And thanks to a good exchange rate, they also remain a highly affordable vacation for American travelers. Today, we're counting down our picks for the best of the best.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, British Columbia
Vancouver Island's west coast is already Canada's top surfing destination. Add a 46-mile trail through old-growth temperate rain forest, a hundred islands for wilderness kayakers, and 20,000 migrating gray whales each spring, and it's no wonder the 93-mile strip of seashore is so popular that reservations are required to visit certain parts.
Inland, it's a temperate rain forest, which means it gets around 120 inches of rain a year. (So pack the rubber stuff!) And don't hike the trails without a buddy--wild cougars are frequently observed in parts of the park.
When to go: Late June to early September for the finest weather, but March and April for the whale migration.
Wildlife: Killer whales cruise offshore, eagles soar over the Broken Islands, sea lions and seals play in the surf. Bear-watching boats depart from the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet for about $50 a run. (All prices in this article are in U.S. dollars.)
Where to stay: The waterfront Whaler's Point Guesthouse in Tofino, a town that's becoming well known for its galleries. Simple private doubles $57, 250/725-3443, tofinohostel.com/.
Don't miss: Dipping your toes into tidal pools or exploring the rain forest with the park's free interpretive walks and trails. Nuu-chah-nulth Trail, for one, focuses on the history of the First Nations, the preferred term for Canada's indigenous people. For details, make a stop at the park's recently revamped Wickaninnish Centre at Long Beach.
Kids: Teenage girls can learn to ride the waves at Surf Sister's five-day summer camps ($375) and two-day programs ($148). Lessons for anyone 12 and up are $57. 877/724-7873, surfsister.com/.
Planning: 250/726-7721; Tourism British Columbia, 800/435-5622, hellobc.com/.
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Separated by a slashed clearing through the forest, Alberta's Waterton Lakes National Park and neighboring Glacier National Park in Montana form the world's first International Peace Park. The tiny lakeside town of Waterton sits where the Rocky Mountains drop dramatically to rolling prairies, generating winds so strong the historic seven-story Prince of Wales Hotel has to be anchored with huge cables.
When to go: The sunniest weather is from June through September. For wildflowers--55 percent of Alberta's wildflowers are found in the park--visit in early summer; for bird migrations and the best animal sightings, go in late fall.
Wildlife: Watch for moose at Cameron Valley (a popular canoeing lake); black bear, elk, and bighorn sheep on the prairie portion of the park; eagles on updrafts in the valley; and grizzlies wandering in the wilderness beyond town.
Don't miss: The two-hour cruise along the shores of Upper Waterton Lake, which is the deepest lake in the Rockies. It goes to Goat Haunt, a U.S. ranger station just over the border in Montana ($19 adults, $14 ages 13 to 17, $7 kids, Waterton International Shoreline Cruise Company, 403/859-2362).
Where to stay: Waterton Lakes Lodge is the only full-service resort in town (from $163 in summer, about $50 less in spring and fall, 888/895-6343, watertonlakeslodge.com/). The historic Prince of Wales Hotel, below, has an undeniably spectacular view--unfortunately, it charges high rates to match. You're better off visiting it for afternoon tea ($19).
You need to know: Because there are only 400 hotel rooms available in town, you really do have to book far in advance!
Budget secret: Park interpreters from both the United States and Canada lead free cross-border, full-day hikes every Saturday. You only have to pay for the boat fare: $4 to $11, depending on age.
Planning: 403/859-2224; regional information, 403/853-2252, watertonpark.com/.
Banff National Park, Alberta
Canada's oldest national park started with three prospectors poking around the Rockies. They didn't find gold, just a steaming, sulfurous hot spring, but the protection of that discovery, in 1885, led to the creation of a 656-square-mile park of jagged snow-capped mountains, broad U-shaped valleys, turquoise lakes, rich forests, and meandering rivers. More than 4 million visitors pay their respects every year, and with some of the world's best hiking and skiing, peak season never ends.
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